On Angel’s Wings
by E. B. Davis
The people who retire to Hatteras Island keep to themselves. There’s church, community events, and charitable organizations where everyone pulls together for disaster relief after hurricanes. But like most folks, I keep to myself unless compelled or volunteered, which happens occasionally when I’m not alert. So, when I saw a dog running wild in the street in front of my house, as a dog mom, I felt compelled to get him off the road. I called the dog to me and friendly as could be, he ran to me.
According to his tag, his name was Jingle, a scruffy looking terrier of some sort. From the address listed on his collar, he belonged to the new Coast Guard family down the street. My dog Rocky, a congenial gentleman, decided Jingle was a fine playmate. Jingle followed as we walked him back to his house. I rapped on the door. A late twenty-something woman with frizzy, brown hair opened the door.
“Has he been bothering you?”
No smile, welcome, or introduction offered, I said, “No. But I was concerned that he was running wild. What if a tourist ran him over?”
“Jingle knows not to go into the street. He likes to meet my girls when the school bus drops them off.”
Since Jingle had been in the road in front of my house, I guessed he didn’t know quite as much as his mom thought he did. Should I contradict her? “Oh, well, then no problem.” Not my best response, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. “I’m Emily Johnson. I live down the street and have noticed your precious girls. If you ever need a babysitter, let me know.” Well, hush my mouth. Compulsion is a terrible thing.
The woman’s shoulders dropped. “That’s so nice. I’m Jennifer. My husband, Dan, was just deployed and won’t be home for six months. There are times when I could use a babysitter.” She invited me in. As she led me to the kitchen, I smelled a strong odor. Perhaps she had just finished doing her nails because the odor reminded me of nail polish remover, not a wonderful smell, but it seemed strong, and mixed with ammonia. I thought she’d offer me a chair at the kitchen table, but she offered neither to sit and chat or to bring me a cup of coffee.
“Let me get your phone number.” Standing, she transcribed my number on a piece of paper on the kitchen counter as I told her, wrote her number at the bottom, ripped her number off, and handed it to me. “I’m having a party on Saturday night. Could you keep the girls overnight? I’ll come over and get them the next day. I know which house you live in. I’ve seen you walking your dog.”
I was taken aback. She didn’t know me, and yet she trusted me with her children for an extended time. If my unproductive kids ever had children, I know they would do everything they could short of DNA profiling to check out anyone they’d leave their kids with. I did, back in the day. Perhaps I looked trustworthy. Perhaps because I brought her dog back I’d proven myself. But then, between the two of us, I was the only one who really knew I was trustworthy. Generation X’ers! Maybe we were on the Z’ers now. Zero brains more than likely. I took a deep breath to allow my better nature to exert itself. After all, perhaps she’d scouted babysitters and asked neighbors about me. At least, I hoped so. “Of course, what time should I pick the girls up for their overnight?”
That had been three months ago. She hadn’t picked up her daughters until four pm and looked hungover. The girls, Hannah, age eight, and Becky, age six, were delightful. While my opinion of the girls rose, my opinion of the mother didn’t get much better. I kept thinking that if the girls were a product of their environment, including their mother, she couldn’t be all that bad. But I’d heard rumors around the neighborhood about her parties.
Now, two days before Christmas, I stepped back to admire the contrast of the white sun-bleached shells against the green branches and wondered about the replication of the heavenly images in nature. How had that happened and why? Was it a heavenly reminder?
When the phone rang, Rocky woke up with a start. My cell phone identified Judy, a neighbor, calling.
“That woman is trouble, Emily. Those girls are in danger.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Jennifer, Hannah and Becky’s mother. Hank Jensen thinks she’s cooking meth over there along with Sandra, their immediate neighbor.”
“Why would he think that?”
“He’s seen chemical drums and a lot of prescription boxes—allergy medications have that stuff that’s a component of meth—pseudo-something or other. I don’t understand it all, but that’s what he thinks.”
“I hope he’s not right. Has he reported it to the police?” I thought about the acetone and ammonia odors that I smelled the one and only time I’d been invited inside.
“Hank? Of course, not. Hank doesn’t like the police. Besides, he isn’t one-hundred percent sure.”
What to say to Judy? No one wants to point an accusing finger at anyone. The girls seemed fine. Cleanly clothed, freshly bathed and ready for school each day, they also weren’t starving. No, Jennifer would never be a June Cleaver, but being a Stepford mother wasn’t required. On the spot, I changed the subject. “Are you going to the Christmas Eve service tomorrow night?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Great, Judy. I’ll see you there.”
I opened the door to ask her a question about my house like, did a bird do something untoward on my siding? But when I looked at the spot where she had stood not seconds before, no one was there. How had that happened? I looked at Rocky. “You saw her, too. I know you did. Don’t deny it.” Of course, he didn’t answer, but he also didn’t look perturbed either. It was beyond me how she had moved so quickly. Maybe she was renting a house with her extended family for the holidays. Renting large houses to accommodate growing families was a new trend in Hatteras. There were very few months of the year anymore when we didn’t have visitors on the island.
A little while later, I heard scratching at my door. I knew who was there, opened the door, and let in Jingle, who had taken to staying with Rocky and me during the weekdays. I was unsure why he wouldn’t stay with Jennifer, and it bothered me that he didn’t seem to enjoy her company. At three-thirty, he stood by the front door asking to be let out. I watched him, making sure he didn’t get out on the road. He met the school bus that discharged his girls. His loyalty and protectiveness touched me.
I thought about Judy’s phone call. Until there was hard evidence, I wouldn’t believe the rumors about Jennifer.
After dinner, Rocky and I took a walk for his bedtime constitutional. At this time of year, a walk around the neighborhood was a treat, seeing the lights on neighbors’ houses and lit trees within. Detouring from our usual route, we walked past Jingle and the girls’ house. Unlike the other houses, I didn’t see lights or decorations. Houses with kids normally were the most decorated. It was a shame for the girls, but then, perhaps if their father was home the situation would be different. What mother had the time to do it all?
“Whoowie, it feels good out here.” I recognized Jennifer’s voice.
“Yeah, as much as I love the stuff, cooking it isn’t great.” Whose voice was that? Olivia’s? I didn’t know the sound of her voice, but it seemed like both voices had come from inside the shed when the door opened. I was too afraid of getting caught snooping to look around the corner. “Better than spending money to buy it.”
“I’m scared the stuff might explode. You hear about it happening. Sandra, my children are upstairs.” Sandra! The woman from the house right next door. Her property line was only a few feet away from the shed door. It was no wonder they were in it together. Jennifer couldn’t have hidden it from them if she’d tried. Sandra’s husband had to know, too. Low round objects were lined up between the houses. My heart sunk and my stomach clinched as I realized they were propane tanks. There were five of them. Dear Lord!
“Nah, that’s only when there isn’t proper ventilation. On Hatteras, the one thing we’ve got is wind ventilation. Until Dan gets back, this is a great money maker and party central.”
They laughed. I was too petrified to move. The door slammed shut. Their voices were muffled now coming from inside. I peeked around the corner. Of course, Olivia had disappeared again. How had she walked around the corner and vanished just as Jennifer and Sandra were opening the door?
I ducked back into place and walked to the front of the house where I rejoined Rocky. Rocky? My heavens. How strange? Rocky stayed quietly where I’d left him. I don’t think that had ever happened before. Usually, he’s my shadow. We walked silently back to my house. I was freaked out. Jennifer and Sandra. Propane tanks. Olivia. Rocky. The girls!
I wrestled with myself most of the night. At what point do you get involved? I had no evidence. I had overheard their conversation. To the cops, that would be the hearsay of a batty old lady who imagines the worst of everyone. Little did they know how many allowances and excuses I’d given the mother. Outside of the shed, only the propane tanks were visible. Common household items at the beach. Even if they believed me, the police wouldn’t have enough to establish probable cause to get a search warrant, if my mystery reading served me correctly. On a small island where everyone knew everyone else, pointing fingers without proof would backfire on me big time. But I had to do something. I didn’t sleep most of the night, praying for guidance.
Jennifer didn’t even say hello. “I like to make a lot of the Christmas presents I give. This year, with Dan gone, I’ve run out of time. Would you take the girls tonight?” Yes, I knew what she and Sandra were making for their “friends.” Homemade gifts, my butt.
“What a coincidence?” She probably didn’t expect sarcasm from a little old lady. “I was just going to call you. There’s a children’s play at church tonight that I thought the girls would love to watch.”
“That’s would be awesome,” she gushed.
I cut her emotional display short. She must have felt guilty about dumping her kids on me at the last minute on Christmas Eve. But I don’t suffer fools gladly. “Please have them dressed for church and ready by four pm. I have a special dinner planned before church. Put their pajamas and clothing for tomorrow along with their nighty-night blankets and stuffed animals in their backpacks. I’ll need their brushes, combs and toothbrushes, too. Oh, and Jingle’s bed and bowls, too. Rocky will love to have his friend over while we’re at church. And you know, Jennifer, since Santa is supposed to come tonight, could I tell the girls he knew they would be here? Could I put their gifts under my tree for them?”
There was silence. “Umm, well…”
“Last time they were here for an overnight, you didn’t get them until four in the afternoon. Santa will be quite overdue by then.”
“I hid their gifts in my car trunk.”
“That makes it easy, then. After I get the girls to bed tonight, I’ll call you. You drive them over, okay?”
“I’ll be busy. They can get them later.”
“Sure,” she growled. “Call me.” And then, she hung up. Such a delightful neighbor. I had bought a few gifts for them, too, but I wasn’t going to tell Jennifer.
At four, Jennifer’s eyes never met mine when I picked up the girls, Jingle, and their overnight stuff. She practically shooed them out the door. She threw me the keys to her car so I could get Becky’s car seat out. If I hadn’t helped a friend of mine put her grandchildren’s car seats in her car, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Does everyone need engineering degrees nowadays? I left her keys on the front door stoop.
“Miz Emily, will Santa know we’re staying with you?” Becky asked.
“Yes, he most certainly does,” I replied. Even if I had to drive over to that den of iniquity and transfer the girls’ gifts from her trunk to mine, Santa would come.
“Will Daddy call tomorrow?” Hannah asked.
“I would think so, honey, but I don’t know for sure. If he can, he will.” Their questions finally petered out as I read them a Christmas story and turned out the light. Jingle laid down between the twin beds in my guest room to stay with his girls. I wanted to wait a while to make sure the girls were sound asleep before I called Jennifer.
When I returned to the family room, Rocky walked over to the front door, sat down, and stared at the door. “What’s up, Pup?” He looked at me as if I were stupid. “Okay, already.” I opened the door. By the road, Olivia frantically put her hand to her ear, as if on the phone. Then, she put both hands in front of her wildly gesturing to me. “Call now?” I asked. She pumped her head up and down. “Okay, whatever you say.” I found my phone on the coffee table and hit in Jennifer’s number. When I walked back to the front door, of course Olivia had vanished again.
I decided to sit outside on the front porch in the balmy ocean breeze away from the girls hearing. When Jennifer picked up, I told her now was the best time to drive over, that I’d be waiting outside for her. With a groan, she agreed. I was surprised not only at how little time it took her to come, but also with the speed of a NASCAR driver.
“For heaven’s sake Jennifer, it isn’t that urgent.”
“Yes, it is.” I must have looked like a quizzical cat. “Just help me get the gifts out. We’ll get them on the porch. You can take them in the house.”
I had just agreed with a disgusted “Okay,” when Rocky let out a huge howl, neck stretched toward heaven. As a Corgi/Beagle, his Beagle self often dominated. I was about to shush him when the ground reverberated around our feet. Flames shot into the darkness of the light. An explosion ripped through the silent neighborhood. Debris rained down. The noise was unholy, and the explosions kept coming. I soon realized there was no danger to my house. But Jennifer and Sandra’s houses were engulfed in a conflagration.
Jennifer watched in horror. Her eyes were wide in the darkness reflecting flashes from the fire. “Oh my God, Sandra!” She ran toward the two houses on fire.
I watched for only a second before I realized the children were probably scared. As I opened the door, I heard sirens coming into the neighborhood. Thankfully, I didn’t have that chore as well. But the children were on the floor of the bedroom clutching to Jingle so scared they hadn’t uttered a word. They looked at me with dropped jaws. “There’s been an accident,” I said, “But your mother is fine.” I sat down on the bed. “Your house isn’t so fine, but everything will be all right. Not to worry. Let’s make some cocoa and put on a Christmas movie. Your choice.”
“Mommy’s okay?” Hannah asked.
“Just fine, honey. She went to check on your neighbors, but she’ll be back in a few minutes, I’m sure.” Which turned out to be a lie, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Eventually, I got the girls back to sleep. Jingle stayed with his girls while Rocky and I took a short walk to find out what was happening at the fire where I finally found Jennifer. She was answering questions fired at her by the police. I interrupted explaining that I was caring for Jennifer’s children, pointing to my house. She gave me her mother’s phone number and asked me to call her to come get the girls. Tears ran down her face when she told me Sandra and her husband did not survive the blast. The police said they’d stop by to get a statement from me in the morning.
A few hours later at four in the morning, I had quite a chat with Jennifer’s mother, who wasn’t as shocked as I would have been. Only figures, I guess. Rather than bring in the gifts, we packed her car with all the presents and possessions. At the last moment, we gathered up the sleeping girls and put them in her car. Jingle hopped in the backseat between the girls. Their grandmother drove off into the night with a heavy heart, knowing her daughter was in jail.
I knew I couldn’t get to sleep. After I drank some coffee and ate some jam thumbprints, Rocky and I walked by the two rubbish heaps that had been houses. But I couldn’t stomach the sight nor the stench. We walked to the beach to watch the sun come up over the Cape, breathing in the fresh salt air blown in on the waves.
Sandbars, or shoals, are plentiful and treacherous around Cape Hatteras. They are responsible for the multitude of shipwrecks that have occurred over the years, earning these waters the moniker “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” As destructive as they are, they also reflect light that many artists value when they paint beach scenes. To this day, I blame it on the shoals or maybe the light, but that Christmas morning, I saw light reflecting on the gossamer wings of an angel, one I called Oliva. I couldn’t believe my eyes and held my breath. She fluttered her wings. She didn’t speak, but in my head, I heard a soft voice say, “Good work, earth angel.” I let out my breath. Tears formed in my eyes. And then of course, she disappeared. I turned to Rocky. “Don’t deny it. I know you saw her, too!” Rocky grinned.